I was only 8 years old the first time a woman assured me that all men were pigs. “Well, most of them anyway,” she quickly corrected herself, so as not to seem overly judgmental. I nodded, knowing even then that I would never believe such a thing.
I try to keep that idealistic resolve in mind now that, day after day, even hour after hour, powerful men are being accused of groping some poor woman’s breasts, making crude sexual comments for cheap laughs or doing something much, much worse.
On Thursday, it was U.S. Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota who admitted to grabbing a Los Angeles radio anchor in 2006. There’s even photographic evidence. On Friday, it was the men of the TED talks empire.
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We’ve also got Tony Mendoza, the California state senator accused of inviting a 23-year-old Sacramento State fellow over to his house, and of plying a 19-year-old intern with alcohol in a hotel suite. On Friday, a third staffer blasted him for sending inappropriate, late-night text messages and even kissing her on the cheek once.
Before that, it was Louis C.K. admitting to masturbating in front of several women. And Kevin Spacey, who thought it was a good idea to use his sexual orientation as an excuse for drunkenly accosting teenage boys.
And we can’t forget about Roy Moore, the former Alabama judge running for U.S. Senate who continues to deny that he sexually assaulted teenagers while he was in his 30s, launching a smear campaign against his accusers in the process. He admits he might have “dated” a few of the girls, though, because, you know, that makes things better.
There’s no telling where this will end.
On one hand, women everywhere should feel relieved. There is no place in our society for men who abuse positions of power and engage in predatory behavior to take advantage of people, especially women, in the workplace. That’s why it has been particularly satisfying to see these pigs – I mean, men – be exposed by the press, shamed on social media, forced to apologize and, in some cases, investigated by the authorities or drummed out of their jobs.
But it’s precisely because of this short turnaround from accusation to forced retirement that women should also feel a little bit uneasy. I know I am.
I can’t help but wonder: What’s next? What happens when the howl of public rage dies down? Because it will. In fact, I’m surprised it hasn’t already. It’s not as if men assaulting and harassing women were some new and shocking thing.
What is new is the swift punishment for perpetrators, even for violations that occurred years or decades ago. What of the inevitable backlash?
Also, where do we draw the line for men between inadvisable behavior and inexcusable behavior? And what are the consequences for blurring those lines, lumping decent men who may have committed one minor sin in with swine? Because in the workplace, there will be consequences, no matter how unintended.
I know these aren’t popular questions when so many women are rightfully optimistic after so many years of sexual misconduct being brushed off as harmless, boys-will-be-boys behavior. This might not be the time to ask them.
But as of late, my Facebook newsfeed has been filled with non-piggish men, young and old, married and single, trying to figure if they’ve gone too far – and, poor them, the answers from women have all been different.
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Is it OK to flirt at work? No, say many women. Well, what about all the married couples? And what counts as flirting?
How about commenting on a woman’s appearance on the train? Is that OK? Does drunkenly grinding on a woman on the dance floor without her permission count as sexual assault? Is this or that bad joke sexual harassment?
While the laws about sexual misconduct and harassment in the workplace are clear, a report from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found workplace harassment remains a “persistent” problem and training too often makes no difference.
Still, most people know you can’t go grabbing a woman’s butt without permission, even if you think it’s funny. And you can’t keep asking a co-worker to go on a date if he or she keeps saying no.
Meanwhile, the standard for criminal sexual assault charges varies from state to state. Socially, things are murkier still. In a bar setting, pickup lines and “jokes” that would be considered straight-up sexual harassment in coastal liberal enclaves would be run-of-the-mill dating behavior in large swaths of the Midwest.
Perhaps it’s this last point that has some men I know reconsidering the Pence Rule. For the uninitiated, Vice President Mike Pence refuses to meet alone with a woman who isn’t his wife.
Are some men so worried about being accused of sexual harassment that they’ll decide it’s just easier not to meet with any woman alone? If so, that could be a problem for women because men still dominate most workplaces. The glass ceiling is cracked, but still intact.
Also, with so many men running scared, will it be harder for women to get male mentors? And if so, how will that affect career advancement? I think of my own career. I’ve had a number of male mentors. I wouldn’t be where I am today without their guidance – yes, even in one-on-one meetings.
I have no answers for any of these questions. I doubt that anyone does, and that anyone will for years. That’s how long it will probably take the dust to settle, as Americans begin to come up with a new way to think about sexual misconduct.
In the meantime, the only sensible course of action is to keep being clear about personal boundaries, keep insisting on apologies from men who cross them and, if necessary, keep demanding that violators be punished. There is so much to gain, even if there are things to lose, too.
Thanks to the investigation of Mendoza, for example, the California Senate changed its process for addressing sexual misconduct complaints, announcing that an outside legal firm will handle all investigations going forward, instead of the Senate Rules Committee. The Capitol has been a cesspool of misogynistic behavior for too long. This needed to happen.
In Hollywood, the rapid-fire shunning of Harvey Weinstein, Spacey and many others is a cautionary tale for men who would continue to engage in the kind of casual harassment that has been common for so long in show business. It’s no longer OK. There’s now a price, if not hell, to pay.
But more than anything, it’s the millions of victims of sexual assault who will gain strength from this. Such as a teary-eyed Beverly Young Nelson, who added her name to a growing list of women accusing Moore of misconduct.
“I would probably have taken what Mr. Moore did to me to my grave, had it not been for the courage of four other women that were willing to speak out about their experiences with Mr. Moore,” she said at a press conference on Monday, her husband looking on from the audience. “Their courage has inspired me to overcome my fear.”
Not all men are pigs. But to the minority who are, you’ve been warned.